Broken Bad: Australia's addiction to torrents

Breaking Bad is available in Australia on the same day that it airs in the US, and yet Australians still torrented the final episode more than any other country.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

It comes as no great surprise that Australians more than any other country were downloading the finale episode of AMC's ground-breaking drama series Breaking Bad via BitTorrent, but they should now have fewer excuses than ever to be doing it.

Image: AMC

The data from BitTorrent news site TorrentFreak showed that of the 500,000 to download the series finale of Vince Gilligan's critically-acclaimed show, 18 percent of users were from Australia, and even more remarkably, five of the top 10 cities worldwide downloading the show were Australian capital cities.

Australians love torrenting more than Walt Junior loves breakfast; we have long been known to top these charts, which last gained attention during the last season of Game of Thrones. But this season no doubt some would have expected to see a shift away from BitTorrent, given there has been at least two ways to get the show through more legitimate means almost as soon as it has aired.

Foxtel's Showcase channel aired the episode five hours after it aired in the US, and it was also available on iTunes  — albeit with some complaining about the second half of season five being included as a whole separate season requiring those who had already purchased a season pass to buy another pass.

The common response as to why people continue to torrent usually falls back on one excuse: they don't want to pay for Foxtel.

While Foxtel has come a long way in terms of its offerings of late, with the most recent product Foxtel Play allowing customers to build their selection of channels starting at AU$25 per month, a person who is only interested in Breaking Bad would need to pay AU$50 minimum per month just to be able to see it when it airs.

There's also the small problem that Foxtel's on-demand online replay service often doesn't upload the episode it just aired until the next day. People who had missed the finale will have to wait until the next day and hope that social media doesn't spoil it for them before then.

News Corp CEO Robert Thomson also admitted recently that 20 percent of Foxtel's own subscribers are watching Game of Thrones through torrenting, which suggests they either don't want to cough up the extra cash for the Showcase channel, or they just don't want to stick to Foxtel's schedule.

Users are more than ever wanting to watch what they want, when they want. The linear consumption of television through normal broadcasting, particularly for a cult hit like Breaking Bad is more and more of a relic of the past. But the close-to-immediate availability of the episode on iTunes suggests a deeper addiction to torrents that will take more than Foxtel to shake off.

It suggests that Australians have long felt shafted by US content companies taking them for granted, and are sick of having to wait sometimes as much as six months to a year to see a show, and having spent so many years torrenting, it is easier to go with what they know, rather than to try a more legitimate route.

Research shows that trying to punish or educate users through a three-strikes infringement notice scheme isn't really an effective method to deter piracy, so the only foreseeable circuit breakers that will get Australians off their addiction to torrenting is either a drastically reduced price for Foxtel, or the availability of an online streaming service like Netflix.

But it's difficult to see either happening for some time. Foxtel's business is doing quite well. In the last financial year, the company added 82,000 customers, bringing its customer base to 2.48 million — a 3.4 percent growth. Revenue was also up 3.9 percent to AU$3 billion. For joint owners News Corporation, and Telstra, they're not going to be willing to make any drastic changes to something like that just yet. Not to mention the inherent culture of bundling in some of the more popular channels together with ones that fewer people watch is a hangover from the US's own cable system. NPR's Planet Money had a good episode last week outlining how we ended up in that situation.

Foxtel is also the reason why streaming services won't be a major player in Australia for a little while yet. Foxtel has been able to lock up a lot of the premium HBO or AMC TV content for months, and even years before they'll reach other platforms simply because the scale of the company gives it a better bargaining position than any other content owner in Australia.

Quickflix has previously admitted that it can't hope to compete with the likes of Foxtel because it doesn't yet have the scale needed to be able to throw its weight around.

That should make it easier for larger players like Netflix to come in from the outside and negotiate a deal to bring content to Australia, except the US studios have an addiction of their own in territorial licensing to provide funding from other countries that they rely on in order to produce the shows in the first place.

Why would they sign one big deal with Netflix when they can sign a whole number of smaller, but ultimately larger, deals with companies like Foxtel across the rest of the world?

The studios could also follow the lead of The Walking Dead video game. The game comes in five chapters which people can subscribe to outright or pay a couple of dollars for each time a new episode becomes available. The 8.5 million episodes sold for around US$40 million in sales is nothing to be sneezed at.

But for now we have a stalemate.

The Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation (IPAF) released a survey of 12 to 17 year-olds on Monday that showed that one of the key motivators for teens to download films and TV shows was to be able to watch it on their terms, and the study pointed to the availability of streaming services as being a "desired behaviour" but in the very next point, the study points out that the majority of Australians between 18 and 64 years of age think we need more regulation to deter infringement in the first place, without any mention of addressing the cause of that infringement.

Just like Breaking Bad's protagonist, the content owners cling to their crumbling empire, losing control of their precious product as it reaches the rest of the world.

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